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Monopoly's Not for Losers

The designers of Co-opoly, a new, locally published board game, hope to prove the point the original, long-forgotten creator of America's favorite game never did.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012
Photo By Mark Roessler
Brian Van Slyke (left) and Andrew Stachiw

Two years ago, Parker Brothers celebrated "75 years of Monopoly" by releasing a new edition that featured a round board.

"The world's favorite family game brand continues to introduce innovative game play in 2010," announced the press release from the game company. Parker Brothers is now owned by Hasbro and has corporate offices in Pawtucket, R.I. and Longmeadow, Mass. The new version of the game was dubbed Monopoly: Revolution Edition.

Ever since Parker Brothers began publishing the game in 1935, Monopoly has been the world's best-selling board game. It's been translated into most major languages, and the design, which features street names from Atlantic City in New Jersey, has been adapted (under license) to localized and themed versions of the game (including a special Northampton edition). Instead of being confined to playing on the streets of the Garden State's seaside city, players around the globe can find versions using their own cities as a frame of reference. Europe alone has over 30 different versions.

Monopoly: Revolution Edition replaces paper money with electronic banking and play credit cards. There are a few other updates, but at its core, it's the classic game you remember from your youth. Simulated capitalism. Every player for himself.

Maybe you're one of the annoyingly lucky (but hopefully affable and charming) creeps who always ends an evening of playing Monopoly with more property, buildings and cash than you can count. Good for you.

By its very design, though, the game, for everyone else at the table, involves hours of long, drawn-out tedium suffering the effects of unrelenting loss. As the rules state, the winner is the player who "become[s] the wealthiest ... through buying, renting and selling property."

Last year, Northampton-based Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA) published Co-opoly. Designed by recent Hampshire College graduates and TESA founders Brian Van Slyke and Andrew Stachiw, the game offers an alternate playing experience with a different life lesson.

"Where everyone wins or loses," the box top declares. Instead of trying to drive other players to ruin, all play against the bank and fate together, earning and losing points as they face the challenges of surviving together as a co-op. The game is considered "won" when players have enough points to start a second co-op.

Co-opoly is not the first game to challenge the money-hungry, king-of-the-hill, Lord of the Flies mentality Monopoly seems to celebrate.

Indeed, it may seem beneficent of Parker Brothers' management to allow TESA to promote, print and sell a game that so clearly relies for its success, at least in part, on the fame of the classic trademarked game even while subverting its meaning. After all, Disney execs don't allow Mickey to show up in other cartoons, especially those saying everything Walt stood for is wrong. Preserving name recognition and brand integrity with legal action is a well-established tradition in corporate America.

As it turns out, the multinational game company has tried to eliminate competition before, even going so far as to have copies of Anti-Monopoly sent to a landfill in 1974. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals eventually sided with Ralph Anspach, the author of the offending game, ruling—in part—that as the title of Parker Brothers' game was a generic word, they couldn't prevent others from using it.

In defending his suit, Anspach researched the game's origins and eventually found players who remembered trying the game long before 1935.

Even more surprising, Anspach found the game itself was originally designed by Lizzie J. Magie, who patented a version in 1904 as The Landlord's Game. A Quaker from Virginia, Magie hoped the game would act as a teaching tool to illustrate the lopsided, hopeless nature of capitalism.

The pain you're feeling while losing Monopoly is supposed to make you want radical political reform, not to make you want to submit to another beating by playing again. As far as this game goes, instead of being "innovative," it appears that Parker Brothers has sought for more than three-quarters of a century to hide the not-so-capitalist-adoring origins of its biggest breadwinner.

*

Even before explaining the rules or objective, the introduction to a typical Monopoly rule book spins the story of its creation like this:

"PARKER BROTHERS Real Estate Trading Game Monopoly ® was invented during the Great Depression by Charles B. Darrow of Germantown, Pennsylvania. Mr. Darrow, like many other Americans, was unemployed at the time and he worked out the details of the game primarily to amuse himself during this period. Prior to the Depression, Darrow and his wife vacationed in the resort town of Atlantic City, New Jersey. When it came to naming streets on the game board, Darrow naturally adopted those of his favorite vacation spot."

The press release for the Revolution Edition elaborates:

"The images, colors and properties of MONOPOLY are now iconic pieces of pop culture thanks to Charles Darrow. In 1933, Charles Darrow created a prototype of a new game using materials from his own home. He used a piece of oilcloth that had been a table covering for the board, made the houses and hotels from scraps of wooden molding and hand wrote the cards."

During a television interview in 1974, as reported in Ralph Anspach's self-published The Billion Dollar Monopoly ® Swindle, a viewer called in with a comment that was to change Anspach's life and the future of his game, Anti-Monopoly, that Parker Brothers was seeking to block from publication.

"First of all, Dr. Anspach," the caller said, "I hate to date myself with a story going back all the way to the mid-'thirties, but I think Parker Brothers has a lot of nerve suing you for getting a free ride on their game when they stole Monopoly in the first place."

Following up on the call, Anspach and his lawyers began to hear from other seniors who had all played variations of a game they knew as "Monopoly" long before Darrow was said to have invented it. Several of these people also had handmade versions of the game.

While many versions were clearly similar to Darrow's creation—down to basic board design and the inclusion of certain items such as Jail and getting paid for circling the board—Anspach couldn't prove that Darrow hadn't made significant modifications to a folk game and made it his own—the modifications that Parker Brothers now calls "iconic." Until Anspach identified an identical, original source version, he really didn't have evidence that Darrow had stolen the game.

Eventually, he did better than finding a source copy: he found witnesses to the crime. Unwitting accomplices, even. Anspach met the people who had taught Darrow and his wife how to play Monopoly.

Charles and Olive Todd had retired to Augusta, Ga. from a life in the hotel trade. They were in their eighties when Anspach met them. Many years before, they had lived in Germantown, Penn. Charles Todd had known Charles Darrow's wife Esther Jones in his youth; both had attended a Quaker boarding school. When he found out his old school friend and her husband had moved to town, he had them over to dinner.

"When I remembered how Esther and I used to play parlor games as kids," Todd told Anspach, "I kind of sweetened the invitation with 'And after dinner, we'll introduce you people to a great new game which we learned from the Raifords.'"

Anspach asked Todd if he was certain he had introduced the game to the Darrows. Could it have been that the Darrows were playing dumb, trying to hustle the Todds and win the game?

"No, no, no. What do you take me for—a fool?" Todd replied. "It was clear from the first moment that there was no question this game was completely new to the Darrows.... During the next few weeks, we got together and played the game five or six times, and once or twice we invited the Raifords to join us to make sure we were getting it right because Darrow kept asking a lot of picky, dumb questions about how to play. He was a real pest about the rules."

The Raifords and Todds were even invited to play the game at the Darrows' house, so he could ask follow-up questions. Eventually, Todd said Darrow simply asked for the written instructions—12 copies of them.

"[H]e also asked me right in the beginning to make up a Monopoly board for him on the same type of oilcloth we were using," Todd said, "and seeing it again as a perfectly innocent request, I was stupid enough to do that, too."

The Todds agreed to testify for Anspach during the trial.

So did Ruth Raiford. Her husband, another Quaker, had learned the game from a brother who lived in Atlantic City. Her version of the game—the one Todd had copied his from—had one property called Marven Gardens, the name of a housing development that straddled two neighborhoods: Margate and Ventor. Darrow changed the name to "Marvin," presumably thinking he was correcting a mistake.

"Later in the Anti-Monopoly v. Parker Brothers 1976 trial, the misspelled Marvin Gardens helped to nail Darrow," Anspach wrote, "since copies of errors are judged to be especially potent evidence of plagiarism."

*

Lizzie J. Magie's The Landlords Game, patented and published in 1904, has many similarities to Monopoly—board layout, play money, properties and dice—but there is a major difference. To win the game, players were not required to create monopolies by collecting all of a certain kind of property. Streets were not color-coded or given special groupings. Still, the point of The Landlords Game was to travel around the board amassing as much dough as possible and squeezing your competitors dry.

Twenty years after Magie had her game patented, she revised it, attempting to underscore her moral position that the behavior exhibited in the game was reprehensible. By this time, she had more developed views on the subject of ownership, and she'd become an adherent of the works of Henry George, a politician and writer. He believed that land ownership was a key factor in economic inequality. He advocated a "single tax" system to level the playing field, and Magie tried to infuse this wisdom into the game.

But again, the object of the game was to win the most money rather than to learn about the inherent inequalities found in the capitalist system. Her third version of the game attempted to correct this fault. Published in 1932, the new version of the game had a double title: The Landlord's Game and Prosperity. Using the same game board and playing pieces, players were meant to change rules suddenly mid-game. Instead of fighting against one another to the bitter end, competitors were meant to change gears and start working together.

Three years later, Parker Brothers' version of Monopoly was released.

While Anspach had sufficient evidence to prove it wasn't Darrow who had designed Monopoly, it was still a mystery who did. Eventually, researchers for a television documentary on the game tracked down an original draft Magie had created of her Landlord Game. On the same board, overlaid, were the missing Monopoly elements—properties grouped with identifying marks that allowed players to charge more when they had a complete set.

Magie, it appears, had two game designs, but only one got published. The other she shared with friends and colleagues. Anspach was later able to trace the game's lineage down a trail of radical Quaker teachers working across the North East.

*

"The Landlord Game and Monopoly show players what's wrong with the current economic situation," game designer Brian Van Slyke said in a recent interview with the Advocate. "They're about the problem. We're hoping to offer a solution. Co-opoly provides players something to do about it, an alternative they can try right away."

Andrew Stachiw agrees. Co-founder of Toolbox for Education and Social Action (TESA), he helped Van Slyke design, produce and self-publish the game.

"You can't just tell someone to be democratic, or that they should run their organization like a co-op," Stachiw added. "It works much better if you give them a chance to try themselves. Democracy isn't easy, and a lot of us only practice it maybe once a year, or not at all. I think you need to practice it as often as possible: at home, at work, in the groups you belong with..."

At first glance, Co-opoly shares many features of the other games: players move around a board collecting points, facing challenges read off the cards they collect, landing on "pay days," and every time they run through a cycle of play, there's a year-end reckoning and bonus.

The first obvious difference is that instead of having the option of playing as the top hat, battleship or race car, a single token is used to represent all players. Each player gets a turn rolling the dice and responding to the challenges presented, but his success or failure is shared by everyone.

Money, represented by "points," isn't just for spending on new items to make you more wealthy. Players, acting as co-op members, each come with needs and costs, as well as the talents needed to succeed. Before they can even think of trying to establish a second co-op, the goal of the game, as a group players need to make certain that their current co-op can keep all members afloat. Someone doesn't have enough to feed their kids or gets evicted from their home? You all lose.

Before it was released late last year, Van Slyke and Stachiw had the game tested hundreds of times, often bringing it along to co-op conventions or exhibitions where they watched others play. This afforded them a chance to fine-tune the play and make certain it was fun and engaging. The thing they enjoyed the most about the process, they said, was watching people work together to get through the game.

"We encourage players to imagine what kind of co-op they are and what their goals are," Van Slyke said. "People can spend a lot of time getting very serious about the story setup."

"We watched this one group play," Stachiw said. "They were all business partners, but they weren't organized like a co-op and didn't have much experience with it. The moment they got to the first 'pay day,' though—just minutes into the game—they got into this deep philosophical discussion about how they were going to distribute their meager earnings, what was fair. In the time it took for them to resolve how they were going to pay each other, most people had finished the game."

"We got a letter from this dad with two daughters. One was eight and the other 11," Van Slyke said. "And he wrote that playing the game with them had made them get along better together." It had forced them to explore the give-and-take of their relationship more closely and listen more closely to one another.

"We try to run TESA as a co-op," Van Slyke continued, "and sometimes we face business challenges that are exactly like the ones in the game. When we talk about what to do, I find myself saying, 'Well, this is what we decided during the game, and I think it's a good decision now.'"

Van Slyke came up with the idea for Co-opoly while he was a student at Hampshire College. He wanted to invent a quick participatory exercise that helped show people how co-ops and democratic dialog can work. As he tinkered with it, the 15-minute exercise became a full-blown game capable of lasting an hour or more.

When he and Stachiw graduated and formed TESA, they found themselves working with clients on the same issues the game explores, and decided to publish it themselves.

Another difference between TESA's product and Parker Brothers' is that Co-opoly is manufactured entirely in the United States. Accomplishing this, Van Slyke and Stachiw found, was much more difficult and expensive than they expected. While they were able to find local graphic designer Molly McLeod to design the game's graphics and Collective Copies in Florence printed many of the components, other elements were more challenging to track down domestically.

"Take the dice, for instance," Stachiw said. "They're the tiniest component in the game, but one of the most expensive. You can get about a thousand dice from China for somewhere around $50, but the only place we could find that even made dice in America was this place in Kentucky that was looking for $750 per thousand."

After using fundraising services like Kickstarter (an online site that allows developers to solicit donations to complete their projects), they raised the hefty production costs and began taking orders last fall. The past few months have been intense as they've assembled the millions of components together into sets and shipped them out of their home office. Both emphasize how much the production of the game was made possible by local, co-operative help.

"For weeks, we had groups of friends and local co-op people excited about the game helping us fill the orders," Van Slyke said. "They worked in shifts, and there were often 10 people at a time helping us. Then they'd leave and new people would step in."

Like their professional services, TESA offer its game on a sliding scale (coopolygame.com). Customers can decide what they want to spend, from $38 to $70. Part of the earnings for the game go into a fund to pay for people and organizations who may not be able to afford copies for themselves. Games have been sent to India and New Zealand.

Echoing something that Lizzie J. Magie might have said, Brian Van Slyke explained his guiding principle: "Democratic education will help people realize the world they want."

*

For a review of Co-opoly, click here.

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